Friday, 9 October 2009

Interview: Patricia Cornwell

I think I'm getting old. This Summer I have been contacted by people wanting to use past interviews I conducted for ARK and CRIME TIME. So I dived into my shed, which resembles Xanadu out of Citizen Kane, and found about 100 x 3.5 inch disks full of garbled text files. Transferring them onto my computer, I suddenly realised 10-15-25 years have passed since I wrote some of this material, and I resolved to actually begin posting it on this Blog. Hence...

The following extract is from an interview I conducted with author Patricia Cornwell at the Waldorf Hotel, London in 1996. She had just achieved superstardom in the UK and was very difficult to pin down, but the very nice people at Little,Brown allowed little old me to talk to her. I think the reason was two-fold. First, I interviewed another of their authors, Andrew Klavan, and did a good job. Secondly, we let Little,Brown buy the cover of the first issue of
CRIME TIME, which made its debut in front of all the authors and publishers attending the pre-convention party of Bouchercon Nottingham in 1995. This interview was my reward, and I made full use of the allotted 30 minutes.

Whilst transcribing the interview, I noticed something which I think is very telling. Some interviewees talk in phrases, which I then stitch together to make them coherent, and most talk in sentences, but Patrica Cornwell talked in paragraphs. No umming and ahhing. No pauses. Just full-blown, concrete thought. So even though it was only 30 minutes, it was all great and all useable. Very professional.

Below is an extract from the interview. If you are interested in reading the rest of the interview - this full version runs to over 5,000 words - then send $2 to my PayPal account (, label it 'Cornwell' and I'll email it to you as a PDF file.


"Dr. Kay Scarpetta is not similar to anyone. It probably has something to do with the fact that I didn't have anyone in mind when I came up with her. Also, because I'm so rooted in reality - to the real professionals and the real cases - I tend to get somewhat removed from literary, TV or film characters. They, to me, are not reality, so they have no bearing on my work. This means I have a difficult time trying to explain my characters because people like to categorise them by comparing them to other characters."

However, having created this popular character - a female medical examiner who works for the FBI at Quantico - all sorts of variations of her have started to appear in the past five years. The most notable is probably Dana Scully in The X Files, who has expressed some of the same ideas and thoughts as Kay Scarpetta.

"This is one of the reasons why Peter Guber and I are not wasting any time in producing the first Scarpetta film. Unfortunately, my books are the inspiration for other people to come up with other strong female protagonists, particular in the FBI or medical fields. I won't even watch or read these other things that people tell me about because they'll probably just aggravate me."


Patricia knows what she's talking about. In 1979, after graduating with an English major from Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, she became an investigative crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer. It was here that she first became interested in crime and, as part of her job, she gained access to police departments, morgues, laboratories, and detective squad rooms - the people and places that would later turn up in her books. After her move to Richmond, Patricia became a volunteer police officer and was on the streets in uniform. In 1985, she joined the Virginia Chief Medical Examiner's Office as a computer analyst. Patricia wanted to write crime fiction and it was the perfect opportunity for her to do research AND get paid for it at the same time. Eventually, when her manuscripts went unpublished, she ended up needing the job. For six years Patricia witnessed hundreds of autopsies, attended medical school lectures, labs and trials. She researched in the morgue's medical library, wrote technical documents, helped edit the Medico-Legal Bulletin, contributing articles on DNA profiling to link serial killers, the relationship between the medical examiner and the press, drug-related homicides in Virginia and even the importance of accurate technical details in crime fiction. She left the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in 1991 but is now a consultant for them - an honourary title which allows her access for her research. Patricia first went to the FBI headquarters at Quantico to do research for the Chief Medical Examiner's Office, but now visits to do training and research. She teaches classes in media relations and other subjects to the FBI and other investigative agencies.

"One of the reasons I've been fortunate enough to have access to a lot of places and information is because I have a platform of legitimacy from my profession and background. You also earn your credibility through word of mouth and by meeting people. I can't continue to enjoy the world these people live in unless they know they can trust me. They read the books, think I'm okay and the doors open."

She works to get the facts right.

"It's an unforgiving world. If you get something wrong, people turn off you just like that. Besides that, I want to get it right for myself, keep it honest. It's very important to me personally, to get it right, to know what it feels like and to experience it as much as I can."


With access to all this information, and with her two years experience as an award-winning crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer, I would have thought that Patricia would be writing fact, not fiction.

"Sometimes fiction is truer than fact. Actually, I do both, because the scaffolding of all my stories is fact, whether it is a procedure, or the type of case, or the kinds of individuals. It is all rooted in experience and research. That's the fact. The fiction of it is the way that I want the characters to work the cases.

"People have asked me over the years why I don't write true crime and I tell them that I could not bring myself to victimise people all over again. If you have a son or daughter murdered in what turns out to be a sensational crime about which books are written, and you have been on the side of the fence where I have been - seeing relatives sitting in the waiting rooms and the looks on their faces as they come to find out what's happened to their child - I don't want to write about things in gory detail that could upset those relatives all over again. There are cases where people find it cathartic to write about their experiences, and I don't bump the people who do it, it's just that I couldn't, and I don't want to."

Me, again... It was the mixture of both professionalism and emotion that I liked in the books, that make them such rivetting reads. She is still going strong, of course, with the 18th Scarpetta book, The Scarpetta Factor, due out now.

No comments:

Post a Comment